New Yiddish Rep is staging a Yiddish translation of Godot at the Theater of the 14th Street Y, performed with English supertitles by Eli Rosen. Language notwithstanding, this version of Beckett’s tale of existential angst is accessible and mysterious, also equally funny and sad as all Godot’s should be. Despite the dire situation that the four main characters find themselves in, they scratch at their dreary existence to find even the most evanescent signs of hope—evanescent being the key word.
Translator Shane Baker has found excellent Yiddish equivalents for Beckett’s language. He understands that Yiddish is a minor key tongue full of sadness, quicksilver tone changes, perfect for expressing the constant complaints that fill the libretto of Godot. Of course, it is Beckett’s language that passes the time with its casually tossed off deep observations of the human condition in the guise of flippant or quasi-philosophical comments.
The bare outline of the plot: Estragon (known as Gogo) and Vladimir (aka Didi) are waiting to meet Godot. They are in a stark, perhaps war-torn spot where the only decoration is a bare tree. (Scenic designer George Xenos ingeniously uses a stripped-to-the-ribs beach umbrella as the metaphorical tree and a sad, dented plastic globe as the moon. He also designed several degrees of shabby period outfits for all the characters.) They banter nonsensically, revealing decades of suffering and camaraderie. Gogo is beaten daily, his boots irritate his feet and he always spends the night in a ditch. Didi can’t quite remember what day it is but recalls much about his longtime relationship with Gogo.
Their repartee is interrupted by the sudden appearance of the boisterous Pozzo who leads his beast of burden, the question mark shaped Lucky who is sadistically attached to Pozzo by a noose and rope.
After a visit that includes intimations of the world outside this spot and a dazzling five-minute aria of thousands of words spewed by Lucky, egged on by the others, the visitors leave.
Didi and Gogo are informed by the Boy (a fine, low-keyed Myron Tregubov who alternates in the role with Noam Sandler) that Godot will not make an appearance.
In the second act, they are no better off. Pozzo’s reappearance finds him blinded, less belligerent, but still leading Lucky by the noose. Again, night falls after the Boy informs them that Godot is a no-go yet again. Didi and Gogo want to move on. They can’t. End of play.
Director Ronit Muszkatblit wisely has chosen to eschew gimmicks, star turns and the current habit of breaking the fourth wall. With a sure hand she has shaped the play to keep it moving, despite the built-in stops and starts. She keeps all the characters as human-scaled as the script allows—no playing to the audience, no inside joke and, mostly, no shtick not indicated in Beckett’s words and stage directions. (Beckett does enjoy pratfalls, puns, popular references, etc. In fact, theatrical rumor has it that the name Godot is based on the affectionate name the French gave to Charlie Chaplin, Charlot, making Godot a nickname for God.)
Waiting for Godot can be viewed as a very long, heartbreaking vaudeville act: Remember Bert Lahr was the original English language Estragon, playing clown to E.G. Marshall’s straight man. Muszkatblit brings out that quality in this production, but with great subtlety: no shenanigans or non-Beckett stage business as in most recent stagings.
Muszkatblit has a near perfect cast, a foursome that give the impression that long after the audience leaves, they will be still be caught in Beckett’s existential treadmill.
David Mandelbaum plays Estragon/Gogo as a kvetchy, but amiable soul whose shabbiness and suffering are heartbreakingly real. Eli Rosen’s Vladimir/Didi is a calm muse to Mandelbaum’s Gogo, yet makes his suffering and inner turmoil equally clear with his body language. Gera Sandler’s Pozzo is less the usual braying sadistic beast than an oddly lovable bully, quite an accomplishment considering how badly he treats Lucky. Lucky is brilliantly played by Richard Saudek. He is astonishing when he performs his marathon monologue that combines philosophy, nonsense syllables and contemporary references.
Reza Behjat’s lighting helps tell the story as does Moshe Lobel’s ambient sound design.
This is a Waiting for Godot that is closest to Beckett’s original intentions—a view of the world as poignant, heartbreaking, funny and ultimately futile.
Waiting for Godot (in Yiddish) (through January 27, 2019)
New Yiddish Rep
The Theater at the 14th Street Y, 344 East 14th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 646-395-4310 or visit http://www.newyiddishrep.org
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission